An environmental advocacy group intends to sue unless the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest takes steps to safeguard Colorado wolves that venture across state lines onto federal land in Wyoming.
“When Endangered Species Act-protected wolves in Colorado cross that invisible border and land in Wyoming, then they’re in the predator zone, and don’t have protection,” Center for Biological Diversity staffer Collette Adkins said. “That’s the problem that we’re seeking to remedy by putting pressure on the Forest Service.”
Pressure is coming in the form of a “notice of intent to sue” the Center mailed U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service leadership on Feb. 22. Medicine Bow-Routt officials, who declined an interview for this story, citing the litigation, have 60 days to respond or may face a lawsuit.
Wolves disappeared from Colorado’s Southern Rockies by the 1940s, and it’s only recently they’ve started to reestablish. Those first pioneering animals repopulating the state are protected by the ESA, which no longer affords protections to Wyoming wolves reintroduced 28 years ago.
Crossing the state border back into Wyoming has proven deadly for the few pioneering wolves that have successfully dispersed to the Southern Rockies, where wolf reintroduction is planned for 2024.
Three wolves from the first modern-day wolf pack confirmed in Colorado were reportedly shot in Wyoming in 2020. The group of animals primarily made their home in Moffat County not far from the Wyoming border. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers investigated that boundary killing incident, WyoFile has confirmed, and the inactive case was recommended for closure. Because the federal agency hasn’t formally closed it, however, related files remain unretrievable through the Freedom of Information Act.
Wyoming’s predator zone has continued to be deadly for Colorado’s few famous wolves, some of which already navigated through the zone once to make their way south. The Centennial State’s second modern-day wolf pack, the North Park Pack, lost three of its suspected subadult female members to Wyoming predator zone killings in 2022, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s notice.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials confirmed those wolf killings well outside of Wyoming’s normally occupied wolf range, but didn’t provide details. A statute on the books in the Equality State restricts officials from releasing information about legally killed wolves.
“We do know of harvest down in southern Wyoming in the predator area in 2022,” Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told WyoFile.
More information, Nesvik said, will be available in Wyoming’s annual wolf report, which publishes in the spring.
Typically, wildlife falls under the jurisdiction of the states, which complicates and challenges the Center for Biological Diversity’s planned lawsuit. Adkins argued that the Forest Service can take action.
“It’s very clear that the federal government can preempt state laws,” she said. “There’s the Endangered Species Act, but also other federal laws that speak to how national forests are to be managed — and those do take priority over state laws.”
The Center’s notice cited an example of a federal land manager trumping state law to manage hunting. The Thunder Basin National Grassland is doing just that, the document pointed out, by seasonally banning recreational prairie dog shooting in some areas. Notably, that eastern Wyoming federal grassland is jointly administered by the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
But there are big distinctions, Nesvik said, between the group’s wolf hunting request and the prairie dog hunting closure.
“That was a very specific agreement that was negotiated between the local public, all the agencies involved and the governor’s office,” he said. “It was an agreement more than some kind of a moratorium.”
There are three non-contiguous blocks of Medicine Bow-Routt forestland that the planned litigation will target. They’re spread across more than a million acres in the Snowy Range, the Sierra Madres and the Vedauwoo areas. The coming lawsuit, Adkins said, will target only the national forest, not Wyoming’s predator zone where it falls on private or state land or Bureau of Land Management property.
“This lawsuit doesn’t hinge on the federal status of wolves in Wyoming, what it hinges on is the fact that wolves are protected in Colorado,” Adkins said. “You’ve got federal land that straddles the border. It really doesn’t make any sense to have wolves safe from hunting on one side and shot on sight on the other.”
Wyoming policy groups wolves with other species classified as “predators” in 85% of the state designated as the predator zone. Those include coyotes, red fox, skunks, stray domestic cats, raccoons and non-predacious porcupines and jackrabbits. All can be killed indiscriminately, without limit and regardless of season and with few restrictions on methods.
The predator zone policy effectively hems wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the northwest corner of Wyoming, where the species is classified as trophy game that’s managed scientifically and is allowed to persist.
Colorado’s few pioneer wolves that have navigated Wyoming’s predator zone and made it to safer confines south of the state boundary are not significant from a population perspective, said Mike Phillips, a former federal wolf biologist and Montana state senator who was a member of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction advisory panel.
“I’m of the mind that gray wolves were never going to be represented in Colorado by a viable population … by animals wandering out of Wyoming,” Phillips said. “The only way that Colorado would be populated by a viable group of wolves — 250 or more — is through purposeful re-introduction.”
That very thing is on the horizon. Colorado’s draft wolf plan calls for importing 30 to 50 gray wolves from Northern Rocky states like Wyoming over three to five years beginning next year.
Still, Phillips spoke in support of what the Center for Biological seeks in its planned complaint: wolf safeguards from Wyoming’s predator zone policy.
“If needless killing is not wrong, nothing’s wrong,” Phillips said. “So if this lawsuit can help stop needless killing, I’m all in.”